Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Paul has a way of finding angles that bring out different aspects of the process and the developing work."

Peter Howson's story is a potent one. He grew up in a strictly religious household where the threat of Hellfire seemed very real, struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, experience difficulty interacting with others because of his Asperger's syndrome and was then confronted by the horrors of war when he was commissioned by the Times and London's Imperial War Museum to capture, as an artist, the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last decade of the 20th century. There's a great deal here that a documentarian might latch on to and yet Charlie Paul (known for his portrait of Ralph Steadman, For No Good Reason) sets it all aside. His focus is on the creation of a single painting. Everything else flows from there.

“The world... seemed a very scary place and the only way that I could handle that was to paint," says Howson, who famously created his first image of the crucifixion when he was just six. Now he's working on the titular Prophecy, a painting that's ambitiously large in size and scope. Like many of his works, it disdains the traditional artistic focus on the nobility for a tangle of muscular working class bodies, clad in rags where thy are clad at all; women as well as men, all straining upwards, reaching out for something they can barely grasp. At first they are simple red outlines on white canvas. Even then they have personality; but as the paint is added, one layer after another, fleshing out a vision clearly present throughout in Howson's head, we watch them develop and become more human. There's a added tension to it because, as the artist explains, one serious error could lead to him having to scrap the whole thing. He never knows if it's going to work until it does.

Copy picture

Paul has a way of finding angles that bring out different aspects of the process and the developing work. As he looks sideways at Howson's pallette, jagged sculptures are formed from the oil upon it, like angry waves. Light slats in from the studio's tall windows; unlike many painters, Howson seems unconcerned about keeping it consistent, and it brings out different aspects of the half-fleshed figures as if they were squirming on the canvas. The picture darkens considerably as the painter adds glaze but it's notable how much darkness there is in the film from the outset, visually as well as metaphorically. Whereas many artists strain to capture the gifts of the sun, Howson finds secrets in the shadows.

The studio is chaotic. Piles of brushes lie around, some still clogged with paint. There is an obscure abundance of three-and-a-quarter inch floppy discs. Tools and materials are stacked up on shelves yet the artist knows exactly where to find each item as he needs it. He works with a diligent, determined air, never seeming to struggle to find focus - as if every action were part of some predetermined scheme. In this he is perhaps not unlike the God he credits for saving him from self-destruction. We receive a flash of insight into his artistic perspective as he declares that the work of Creation is ongoing.

With Howson himself providing the only narration, there is no conventional documentary structure present, no steering of the narrative beyond that brought out in the edit. Rather than hearing directly about Howson's struggles we see them, see the influences in his art and his painting style, put this together with his talk about dreams and visions of Hell. The striving in the painted figures seems to mirror his own; still also, even through their despair, the hope of salvation. The three-dimensionality, the lucidity of the oils - as much as the graceful movement of the camera - draws us into his world.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2019
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A documentary providing an insight into the mind of acclaimed artist Peter Howson as he works on his latest masterpiece.

Director: Charlie Paul

Starring: Peter Howson

Year: 2018

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2019

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